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The Red File

March 22, 2012

They made the journey up the motorway together. Mostly, they made casual conversation about the other staff, projects and clients of the consulting division. There was no need to go over the contents of the Red File again.

The management accountant was a dour northerner. The meeting began with reference to the latest correspondence, which left the reader in no doubt about the urgency of the matter. The problem was not that the numbers did not add up. They did, to the nth decimal place. The problem was the staff. The assistant management accountants had made their views crystal clear – they were not going to use the system because it was, in their view, “not fit for purpose”, although their choice of phrase was somewhat more colourful.

The purpose of the system was to enable the staff to prepare annual budgets. The budgeting cycle was a very short one. Senior management required numerous iterations. Serious number crunching was involved. The problem was that somehow the staff’s expectations went beyond just number crunching and accuracy. Someone had either raised their expectations;  or may be nobody had actually managed their expectations.

Together, they (the staff) had christened the system “BASIL”. It is common practice to give a computer system a name, which is invariably an acronym. In this case, the letter “B” stood for Budgeting; the rest was probably some combination of the words “System”, “Information” etc. It did not matter. What did matter was that the staff of the fairer sex intentionally (and rather successfully) pronounced “BASIL” in the same way that Sybil Fawlty did. And, like Sybil, they were not amused either!

In short, each of the assistants anticipated being able to prepare their budgets at the same time as the other, if need be. Further, they required and expected an “immediate” response from the system after making a few adjustments. Seconds and not Minutes.  Thus it was that UAT began and then came to a halt rather abruptly. Thus began much serious correspondence, all of which had been gathered together in an appropriately coloured file, for Alex’s eventual perusal.

Management expected (possibly commanded, in the nicest possible way though) him to resolve the problem quickly.  This gave him two problems. He was already committed to completing an accounting qualification in two-thirds of the allotted time, which involved lengthy evening classes far from home. He also realised BASIL had to be re-architected and this would involve close co-operation with the staff.

At first, driving between the three places, several times in the week, was easy. Then, for a split second, he fell asleep at the wheel on the motorway. That single moment did a great deal to make him aware of his physical limitations. He never forgot the importance of being “fed, watered and rested”; as well as, whenever possible, letting “the train take the strain”.  

And so he came to divide his time adequately between staying in different parts of the country. He looked forward to his days “up north”, when he would stay overnight in a comfortable inn and enjoy English puddings for desert! Occasionally, he joined the staff in sampling the local ales, most of which definitely needed to be sampled locally because “they did not travel well”! Gradually, he became, effectively, one of the staff. It always worked best for him this way anyway – the best results are to be achieved when there is no divide between the consultant and the consulted.

The problem with the design was that the underlying software was essentially multi-read but single-write. In those days, multi-dimensional database technology was just made that way. A single physical database file could only be updated by a single user. (Many years were to pass before such database technologies were designed to comprise separate physical partitions, where each partition could contain different sets of data, at different levels of granularity and with different periodicity.)

So, he proposed an alternative design that would involve separate physical databases (one for each assistant accountant), with an additional database which would contain the “common data”.  This design enabled each accountant to work completely independently of the other. And, because each database was much smaller now, the response times for re-calculations was almost instantaneous. He was getting there.

Re-architecting the existing single multi-dimensional database to comprise several smaller databases was relatively simple. But, there was some scope for error, so he made sure that he involved his new “colleagues” from the outset, that is, in the unit testing. (Ten years later, this kind of collaborative systems development technique between the developer and the end-user came to be known as “Agile”.)  It is not that a written specification is not necessary. It is. The key to success lies in involving end-users whose “Day Job” is running the business in the analysis, design and unit-testing. Because it is their system!

Finally, there was the problem of the consolidated numbers. The specification had been written for the management accountant, not his assistants. From the main man’s perspective, a single database certainly lent itself to producing the consolidated number, after applying complex percentage allocations. But, a single database was not the answer. The final solution simply required a separate database which simply aggregated the base numbers. Some simple controls were all that was needed to ensure that each set of the base data could not be used until it was ready. Everybody’s requirements had now been met.

Initially, his Management were not happy, though. The “re-work” was taking longer than expected and his overnight stays in posh countryside inns (with nice dinners) did not help the consulting division’s monthly “bottom-line” either.  But, the client was completely satisfied and that was all that mattered to him. The sales force made sure that they obtained an excellent Customer Reference – “It was an excellent example of the company’s commitment to its clients!”

In the board rooms, senior management (on both sides) breathed a collective sigh of relief. They had closed the Red File.


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